Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Generation Factor

            I wish I could come up with some title as conspiratorial sounding as “The Bourne Legacy,” but I suppose “The Generation Factor” is descriptive enough.  This title may suggest that I might relate an incident at a recent concert with some young person, around 10-15 years old, saying something inane (at least inane to us) such as “You’re my grandparents’ favorite group but I’ve never heard of you….but that’s okay,  you sounded fine.”  But that isn’t the case.  Perhaps the title may suggest that a casino’s young Entertainment Director, recently hired, chooses to ignore the fact that The Kingston Trio had sold out every show during our week-long engagement there but she has chosen to “Go in a different direction” with a rap group she’s heard of.  But that isn’t the case.


            As true as these situations are, I’m going to write about something far more sinister in application and humorous in implication.  I’m going to relay a story that, years later, still makes me scratch any available body part in wonder.  That’s because it concerns an organization whose demographic literally belongs to The Kingston Trio – AARP.


            As happens to all of us, turning fifty several years ago brought with it those automatic and repetitive invitations to join AARP.  I actually began receiving such invitations about the time I turned forty-eight, adding insult to caducity (look it up – I did!).   Deciding that embracing this statistic would serve me better than ignoring it, I joined AARP, and began receiving the monthly periodical with its interviews of celebrities over the age of 50.  These articles were actually quite enjoyable since many of the celebrities fell into that category of “where are they now?”  I was delighted to read of their continued work in the entertainment industry and of their philanthropic work outside of the industry.


So, the seed was planted:  I thought it would be relevant to both the mission of the magazine and the interests of its constituents to propose that they interview The Kingston Trio.  I wrote to the AARP Magazine administrative office to let them know that the Trio was still performing regularly and would be happy to make ourselves available for an interview.   I told them about the manner in which our audiences embrace the music, singing along on songs like Tom Dooley, M.T.A., Greenback Dollar and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? et al as though time hadn’t passed and we were all still the innocent teenagers we once were.


I continued in this vein with my letter, describing the innocuous yet inspirational times during which the music began and our love for and commitment to the continuation of the music.  I felt comfortable in having written a thoughtful letter that would be successful in encouraging AARP to embrace the idea of implementing a comprehensive interview with The Kingston Trio.


AARP was fairly quick with their response, which I thought was courteous.  I will leave it to the reader to reach whatever conclusion you might concerning the age, position, and viability of the AARP staff person who responded.  Here is their response, the stating of which will be the zenith of this blog:  “Your little group sounds like fun.  We hope you have some measure of success one day.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

We are saying goodbye today to our dear compadre Travis Edmonson. His memorial service is in Tucson, a city so dear to his heart. You are missed, Travis.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy birthday, Kingston Trio! 52 years old today, May 27th, 1957

Friday, April 10, 2009

Another New Arrival: OM-21 Custom

After having been a member of the KTrio for three years, I finally gave in and ordered a new guitar from Dick Boak at Martin Guitars. I’d been looking for a smaller-bodied guitar like my old 000-28 and finally settled on the OM model, although I wasn’t sure what version I wanted. I asked Dick what he had in stock and he said that there was this OM-21 Custom he thought I’d enjoy. Like the Vintage Series guitars it had the Indian Rosewood sides and back and an Owl Spruce face with that butter-brown finish, the slightly wider modified V neck (great for finger-picking) and the snowflake fret markers. Best of all, the binding was wood, just like the guitar that was made for me thirty years ago.

Since I hadn’t seen or played it, Dick said he would send it to me to see if I liked it. Well, it’s been almost four months now and it’s now the guitar I play the most often. It doesn’t have the huge sound of my wonderful old D-28, but its tone is so well balance and clear and it is so comfortable to play that I find myself picking it up all the time. And my shoulder doesn’t get cramped from draping it over that big-bodied dreadnought.

It’s been such a delight to have around that I’m speculating on getting another one.

Hmmm…maybe I’d better mention it to my wife first.

Oh, yes, and Emily drew me a picture to share with you all.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

I am very sad to announce that Phil Davidoff passed away last week after a long bout with pneumonia. Phil and Doris Davidoff had arranged the Fan Club Cruises for the Kingston Trio and had been both fans and friends of the group for many years.

He will be sorely missed.


While we were in Venice, Florida a few weeks ago I came upon some of the most beautiful instruments that I have seen in a long time. They were hanging on the sides of a booth at a street fair and their delicate sound filled the air of the booth.

The bowed psaltery was a popular instrument in before the Renaissance and is related to the hammered dulcimer. It is played by drawing the bow across the strings which run between pegs at the bottom and along the edges of the face. It has a plaintive and haunting sound, very much in tune with it’s era.

I had seen these before at folk festivals, but none to compare with the ones in this booth. The craftsmanship on these instruments was just wonderful, with beautiful, original designs and exquisite inlay. And what really caught my eye were the hanging racks that held the instruments. Nothing like I had ever seen before. Apparently many people were buying the instruments simply to hang in their homes, they were so lovely.

I spent a long time talking with Archie Smith, who builds each of these bowed psalteries by hand, and was so impressed with his work that I invited him to the show. He brought one of the psalteries with him and made quite a hit playing it in the lobby during the intermission.

You can see why I was so impressed from the pictures I've included, but if you’d like to see more of them then go to his website at I recommend a visit just to see his amazing designs.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

My New Vega/Deering Banjo

A few years ago, I approached Greg Deering about making another special banjo for me.  I had some specific ideas, and Greg is always up for a challenge, so we began making our plans.  I had two specific ideas structurally for this instrument, one from Greg's incessant search for the better banjo sound and one born of necessity, mainly the fact that I am not a tall guy.

Now, if you had seen me with my parents you would know that in their presence I could have been designated as "tall."  All things being relative, that adjective can only be used in consideration that my Mom was 5'1" and my Dad was slightly taller at 5'3".  Yeah, you're getting the picture now, right?  So even at a towering 5'8" I have difficulty with either of my long-neck banjos whenever I break a string on stage.  The BanjoSaurus is very light and balanced, but the Vega (Kingston Trio 40th Anniversary Commemorative) is a little heavier and, for me, less balanced.  Therefore, when I break a string on it, reaching for the tuning pegs is not easy, and I often resort to help on-stage from Paul.

So, back to the new banjo.  I knew that I was still in love with the long-neck, but its length needed to be shortened slightly.  My solution was to change it from an instrument with three additional frets to one with two additional frets.  This one change made the instrument just shorter enough that it became physically manageable for me.  It also provided a dramatic change in the musical fundamental of the instrument, changing it from the key of E to the key of F.  Musical lore has it that any song in a key with sharps (the key of E has four sharps) is a bright sounding song, and any song in a key with flats (the key of F has one flat) is a warmer sounding song.  So I was taking a bright sounding instrument and forcing its fundamental into a warm key.

The other structural difference between this and a regular banjo is the inclusion of Greg's new Tenbrooks tone ring.  That tone ring is made by a foundry in Sweden which has been making bells for 600 years, so they know something about ringing that the rest of us can't even conceive (go to   and navigate to Tenbrooks).

For the inlay, I wanted something to commemorate my inclusion in and love for The Kingston Trio.  I had access to the autographs of the positive energies that had created and maintained lovingly The Kingston Trio, so I asked Greg if he could turn those autographs into inlays to become the fret markers.  At the bottom of the fretboard is the name "The Kingston Trio," and framing the group's name is Tom Dooley's hangman's noose, made of real rope.  The rope from the noose winds through the names on the fretboard, tying us all together, and ends up wrapping around a tree limb on the headstock.  There are four wraps around the limb, signifying Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, Dave Guard and John Stewart.  The leaves emanating from the limb are green abalone, and their design came from a scan of actual white oak leaves from North Carolina.

The banjo's neck is a beautiful piece of koa signifying Bob Shane's and Dave Guard's home state.  The tree limb on the headstock is made of koa in order to match the neck.  There is a great deal of abalone trim:  on both sides of the neck, on both sides of the fretboard, and even inside the bowl.

Greg and Janet Deering and their talented craftsmen have again created an incredible musical instrument that will live forever as a one-of-a-kind.  Having a banjo from the Deering company is a treasure, but having Greg and Janet as my friends is a gift from the Universe.

Monday, February 9, 2009

George Grove commissioned a new banjo from Deering and just brought it home. The new banjo will be making its debut at the Columbus Symphony gig on Feb. 13th. 

In picture #1: You can see the koa neck and the abalone strip up the side. George says, "I guess you can also see my awe." In picture #2: On the neck, Tom Dooley's rope winds its way through and binds together the names and participants of the tradition of The Kingston Trio, beginning with Bob Shane

Friday, January 2, 2009

"We Three Kings" Explained

Since the release of “On A Cold Winter’s Night,” your comments have indicated that this recording is quickly becoming a favorite. I knew from the moment I heard Rob Reider’s initial recording of that show in Madisonville, KY that this was a concert in which everything worked - music, audience, ambience - and should be offered as a CD. We are delighted that you are delighted.

Most of the music is fairly straightforward, but there is the obvious exception of my arrangement of the bonus track “We Three Kings.” Several people have mentioned that with their first hearing it seemed a bit odd, but it later grew on them as an eclectic arrangement not dissimilar to many songs on the 1959-60 recording “The Last Month Of The Year.” Now they’re interested in learning how it came about. Generally, I did the arrangement at the piano and then went to the studio on August 1st in Las Vegas to record four guitar parts and one banjo part. The vocals were recorded in Phoenix on August 15th. (Las Vegas and Phoenix in August -- perfect weather to put me in the mood for a Christmas song!)

More specifically, though, I am asked about how the arrangement evolved. This arrangement itself is a musical metaphor for the experience of the Three Wise Men as they followed the Star of Bethlehem, as I interpret it. There is no significance to the timing of each section, but the story breaks down like this:
• The opening 23 seconds suggest the Wise Mens’ discovery of the Star and their fear and wonder of it.
• During the next 33 seconds you hear the plodding of their camels as they begin their journey.
• The next 25 seconds indicate their conversation among themselves as they followed the star: what did it mean, why were they making this journey, why were they chosen, what if a camel threw a shoe?
• During the next 30 seconds their confusion and wonder mount as they arrive at their destination. The guitar arpeggio indicates that their Spirits and Consciousness are lifted up as Divine Knowledge exhorts them to continue.
• The vocal indicates their arrival and their introduction of themselves, why they came and the presentation of their gifts.
• The remainder of the song connotes their wonderment in observation of the Christ Child, the taking of their leave and return to their own countries, and, with the Picardy ending, the suggestion of ultimate Hope for the world.

I hope this is helpful, explanatory and entertaining to those of you who have asked about this arrangement.